Waymo has begun to make its fully driverless vehicles more visible on metro Phoenix streets, but continues to release little information to the public about its state-authorized experiment.
The company's chief executive officer, John Krafcik, confirmed at a dinner with journalists in Detroit on October 27 that Waymo would expand “rider-only” services for an exclusive group of customers who had signed non-disclosure agreements. His comments followed statements from Waymo that were published on Reddit three weeks ago indicating that more vehicles with no backup drivers would be available soon.
The Google-affiliated company has been praised for its technological achievements, but the rollout of fully driverless vehicles has been slower than anticipated. Last month, Morgan Stanley cut Waymo's valuation from $175 billion to $105 billion, with an analyst telling the media that the investment firm "underestimated how long safety drivers are likely to be present within cars."
Krafcik added to the hype considerably in March 2018 when he told the media that a fleet of driverless cars would roam a 100-square-mile section of the Valley by the end of 2018. The company launched the taxi-like service, Waymo One, in December of last year, but the service has been conducted almost entirely with backup drivers behind the wheel.
Waymo claims to have been taking customers of its exclusive Early Rider program on the occasional ride in fully driverless vehicles since 2017. The secretive company won't say how extensive the fully driverless portion of its operations are, however. Nor will it release the sensitive data on "disengagements," or episodes in which a human driver must take over for the autonomous system, for its tests in metro Phoenix.
A vehicle spotted last week at the company's Chandler depot appeared to be driven by a human.
Increased use of fully driverless vehicles may indeed have begun, judging by a photo and videos that surfaced recently.
In a video posted on October 26, by "Everything_Is_Awesome506 !" that was mentioned this week in Forbes, a driver of a regular car took footage while making bold maneuvers around a fully driverless vehicle in a residential neighborhood, causing the Waymo vehicle to cut in front of the other driver while making a turn.
Reddit user azswcowboy posted a photo of a Waymo vehicle on Tuesday titled, "Waymo car - no driver or passengers - Chandler morning rush."
"This is the first Waymo car I've seen with no driver," said YouTube user Douglas Souza in a video of the car he later posted on October 7. "Good job, Waymo. Keep it up. Maybe you can expand outside of, uh, this tiny little box you're in in Tempe and Chandler."
A few days after Souza posted the video, a Waymo announcement to its customers showed up in Reddit, stating that "completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way... We're excited to share that soon you may experience one of these driverless rides!"
A Waymo spokesperson clarified that customers have been experiencing driverless rides.
"We can confirm members of our early rider program are taking trips in these driverless vehicles, which we've been testing since 2017," Liz Renninger of Evolve PR and Marketing told Phoenix New Times. "We first offered these rides in a subset of our early rider program in 2017 as well. The purpose of this email was a marketing communication letting our riders know there was an increased likelihood they would be matched with one of these vehicles."
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.